Imagine yourself at a Seahawks home game, early in the season. The Seahawks are driving for a go-ahead score with minutes left in the game. The hand off goes to Marshawn Lynch at the opponent’s 40 yard line. He tries the middle, bounces to the outside, and breaks loose in the defensive backfield. He’s at the 30, the 20…cuts back inside….he’s at the 10 yard line. Finally, a linebacker, a safety and a corner converge on him at the 8 yard line. But Lynch smells the end zone and gives it that “Marshawn Lean” to try and knock that safety out of his path. Marshawn puts his head down, destroys the safety and rolls into the end zone carrying 2 guys on his back. “TOUCHDOWN SEAHAWKS!!!”, shouts Steve Raible at the top of his lungs. The crowd jumps to it’s collective feet cheering wildly! Then Raible says; “Hold on a minute, there’s a flag down on the field at the 10 yard line…Oh boy…it looks like this one is coming back…”.
This could be a common occurrence with the Seahawks this season, maybe more so than with other teams, if NFL owners vote in a new “head lowering” penalty for running backs . Pete Carroll has already said the Seahawks are going to remain a “run first” offense. He may want to change his mind on that one after the first few games if things go the way I’m thinking they could go with this new running back “head lowering” rule. If you haven’t heard, Roger Goodell proposed a new rule in which running backs will be flagged if they lower their head to use the crown of the helmet like a battering ram. This essentially means running backs will have to take on hits standing up or risk a penalty.
I was listening to the “Mike & Mike” show this morning on the way in to work, and they had former Dallas Cowboys Great Emmett Smith on the show to give his “NFL Hall of Fame running back” perspective on the new rule. He brashly said it will make it impossible to play the position of running back. He claimed there is no way a runner who sees he’s about to have a collision is NOT going to instinctively lower his helmet and his whole body to protect himself. Smith added, when you are punished for hitting tacklers with your helmet the end result is you’re going to see a lot of guys just step out of bounds rather than try to get more yards. He thinks it will eventually turn the NFL in to something that resembles “touch football”. Will this still be “football”? I say “no”. Running backs will more resemble quarterbacks at the end of a play, taking a slide to avoid a stand-up hit or meekly squirting out of bounds before the big hits we all know and love.
Now, to be fair, an NFL team of experts, coaches, & former players looked at all the film from last year and only found five instances of this helmet lowering that would have been called under the new rule. So, while there might be a lot of latitude a referee can give backs on this rule, or there might not be. The panel admitted it could be very difficult for a referee to fairly call this kind of thing in the heat of a game. This rule is made for inconsistency in how it’s called, and could be affected by the referee’s angle to the play, his view of the play through other players, the weather, how the other player reacts, and a million other variables. If NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell decides to push this rule hard, it could really put a crimp on the running styles of the hard-nosed, punishing running backs like Lynch. A quick review of some “Beast Mode” highlights reveals Lynch does often use his helmet and shoulders and a healthy forward lean to blast people out of his way. Is this going to make him a magnate for yellow flags? How could it not? You could even say Lynch is the kind of runner this rule is designed to punish…errrr…protect. If there is one rule they could have come up with (other than making the QB scramble illegal) that could put the brakes on a potential Seahawks championship season, this is it!
For other teams with finesse style runners this probably wouldn’t be an issue. Teams with backs that run in a style more like Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, or Barry Sanders will get a break because that style runner very rarely takes on a defensive back. Teams with backs like Earl Campbell, Jerome Bettis, and yes, Marshawn Lynch could potentially lose some important plays, first downs, or critical scores. Remember the Seahawks were a HALF GAME away from winning the NFC West title. One bad call can make that difference. This WILL affect coaching strategies. Worse case; I think it’s possible that coaches will get tired of all the laundry thrown at their running backs and probably will move away from the running game as an important force in their offenses. The NFL will evolve into something like the Canadian Football League, where passing becomes the dominant type of play. That will be too bad. I think it will wreck the game as it has come to be known and loved. The diversity of schemes that combine running and passing is what makes the NFL interesting to watch.
The next question is; will the fans revolt? Will the NFL be on a path to a slow death because fans will slowly find other things to do than watch a league full of guys running around trying to avoid getting hit? Will the game become something so foreign to our senses that it becomes a laughing stock? A quick look at the controversy created by the “defenseless receiver” rule should give guidance here. There were a lot of cases where a legitimate hit was flagged and great defensive plays called penalties. The hit Cam Chancellor put on 49ers tight end Vernon Davis comes to mind… That was a great, legal (as it turns out) hit that should have been called an incompletion and brought on the 49ers punting team if memory serve me. The penalty turned it into a 1st and 10 for San Fran. The Hawks ended up losing that game by a touchdown. If victories are seen as not legitimately won, the loss of fan interest could put a serious dent in the NFL’s credibility and viewership. But then the NFL has survived and thrived amid controversial calls for decades, so maybe it’s nothing to worry about.
Last but not least, will this rule, if passed, affect how Pete Carroll and John Schneider evaluate running backs in the upcoming draft? Might they hedge their bets that sending Marshawn Lynch to ballet school won’t turn him into a finesse runner and go after one in the draft? It seems advisable to have a “change-up” back anyway, but maybe this puts a little more urgency into that kind of pick. I’m thinking a running back with lots of speed and not a lot of brawn, and the ability to avoid pursuit may be high on more than a few teams draft boards.
In the end it looks like the NFL is changing so as not to appear unconcerned, and to avoid the avalanche of lawsuits that will surely materialize if they don’t “do something” now that they know there is a serious problem. Here are some things about this rule to consider moving forward: Will it change the game so much that they destroy the game? If they do nothing can the game survive anyway? Will the running back become extinct? Will they have to make more changes to keep the game interesting? Who knows? Finding the answers to these questions may become more interesting to watch than the actual games. One other thing Emmett Smith said is that people who haven’t played running back at a professional level have no idea what they’re talking about. Sorry Emmett, but THAT’S WHAT WE DO HERE!